Lee Odden

SEO for Newbies

Explaining search engine optimization to newbies is something that anyone with sales or account support responsibilities at a search marketing or interactive agency is going to have to get good at. I used to spend a lot of time using the notion of “organic” and the whole “making fertile ground, planting seeds, nurturing, cultivating, watering, air, sun, bear fruit” kind of analogy but it gets old using the same description all the time.

The best way to explain the notion of optimizing web sites for search engines can vary depending on the starting point. For people stuck in 1999 SEO land, where it’s all about meta tags, submissions and SEO as a “one time” event, an explanation of the need for fresh, themed content and an ongoing pursuit of inbound links can become the focus.

On the other hand, if the company has been through 3 or 4 SEO overly aggressive SEO consultants, the situation may warrant some bad news about all the reciprocal links, third rate directory listings and keyword stuffed doorway pages that need to be cleaned up or dealt with before a reinclusion request can be filed.

The thing is, many of the companies that think they need SEO are in dire need of other process improvements first, such as a well defined conversion process, tracking and analytics. Sending a ton of qualified traffic to a site through relevant visibility on the major search engines, news search, blog search, social media and high profile links isn’t going to do you much good if there’s no accountability between the marketing and sales departments.

Many companies think they’re getting results from their online marketing, but do they REALLY know? In many cases, they don’t and need to spend some time on process and interdepartmental communication right along with their search marketing.

Search engines aren’t the only source of quality traffic either. The art and science of optimization can be extended to any document or file that can get crawled, indexed and ranked. Add to that the idea of social media and the effects of personalized search and explaining the variety of ways to optimize can become information overload.

The moniker, “search engine optimization” is a bit of a misnomer, since you’re not optimizing seach engines, you’re optimizing FOR search engines. SEO is fundamentally a set of methodologies that make it easier for search engines to find, include, categorize and rank your web content. That’s the starting point.

Because so many companies are in dire need of improvements with other matters related to marketing and business processes, many search marketing agencies that specialize in SEO provide a lot more than just keywords and links. That means the definition of what SEO “is”, means more as well.

So rather than spending a lot of time explaining algorithms, ranking and conversion analysis to someone who is very new to the idea of SEO, another explanation might have more to do with business marketing optimization. Or as an upcoming article I’m writing is titled, “Optimize Your Business for Search”.

This is a holistic approach to optimization that can affect a company from branding and communication to public relations, direct marketing and online marketing. For example, something as fundamental as including keyword research into corporate wide messaging can create many opportunities for search visibility as part of an ongoing process rather than individual “optimization” events.

How do you explain search engine optimization to newbies? Have you found clever analogies or metaphors?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Avatar Content Strategist says

    Hi Lee,

    I always skip any of the cute SEO analogies and *directly explain the search engine’s business model* instead.

    This approach works much more coherently than any other I have tried and the rest of it (the SEO explanation) seems to suddenly become intuitive to the listener and no actual explanation of SEO is needed after that.

    I hope that helps!

  2. I provide clients with a Power Point of the basics of SEO. It saves a lot of time. They can study it and go over it all they want..without having to call me. I even give it to designers I work with so they understand to.

  3. Mr SEO, that’s a great idea but rather or, in addition to explaining the basics, a holistic representation of search marketing in general would be quite helpful.

    As for SEO fundamentals, Rand wrote up a very nice resource last year.

  4. Hi Mario, thanks for stopping by! I am honored that you would choose to use that description. 🙂

  5. Avatar Mario Bonilla says


    I am the platform trainer here at PRWeb I have to describe what SEO is to folks that have a vague idea of what a press release is. You might imagine that it is very, very basic. I like this “SEO is fundamentally a ‘way’that makes it easier for search engines to find, include, categorize and rank your web content.” If you do not mind I will start using it in my daily webinars.

  6. Hi Lee,

    hope this gets to you (I “failed the test” the first time”, but last I checked 0 + 0 = 0). Anyway this is a shorter reply than my first attempt.

    I will literally take the time to walk someone through the SERPs. For example, if “blue widget” is a keyword phrase for which the client want to rank well, I walk them through my interpretation of the SERPs on Google. I explain on-page and off-page factors at a very high level explaining key concepts like title tags, meta description, body copy, h1, h2, h3, internal linking, site architecture, external links, backlinks, etc. I know this is probably more information than the average SEO firm gives over the phone to a prospect, but I find it builds credibility and people really appreciate my willingness to provide a lot of useful information. There are a lot of free (Rand) or very low cost (Aaron Wall) resources out there for newbies – and I’m very open about that. I paint a very realistic picture of SEO and try to demystify its practice.

  7. The way I explain search engine optimization to a newbie depends on the person I’m explaining it to (their experience, intelligence, personality type). Some want a simple basic explanation and others want more details. I give enough information to make me credible. I will say I try to limit the details of SEO and focus more on how to implement a successful Internet marketing strategy. While high rankings are crucial, other factors like site design, usability, content, web analytics analysis, etc. are also crucial and often overlooked.

  8. Finally! Someone else embraces the idea of holistic web practices. I had a client who spent a lot of money to get great traffic, but had zero conversion because her site was set up so badly. I’ve always preached the value of integration of your web site with your business. Kudos to you Lee!

    And I agree with Mario’s evaluation of the description, and would like to use it in my training as well. When talking with clients, I try to keep things very simple, unless the client indicates they want and can understand more. In general, I stay away from tech language.

  9. Avatar Carrie Hill says

    Hi Lee,
    I 100% agree with you. It’s so hard to show a client how well-spent their money is when they cannot track revenue from their website – without analytics it’s just “guess-work.”

    At Blizzard we love the “total client.” ONe who does their hosting, design, marketing, and analytics with us. It makes the process very seamless and the time spent “educating” their friend who “works on their website” or explaining why their website is not converting when their “grandma loves the flowery wallpaper” can be spent making them money.

    I love your description of SEO – simple yet thorough.


  10. Avatar Dharmesh Shah says

    Great article.

    I like to describe SEO to small business owners as a way that they can make it easier for their clients to “find” them on the Internet — and therefore much more likely that they will do so.

    Another way that I’ve found helpful (once you start contrasting paid vs. organic search) is to talk about how paid search is like advertising in a magazine and organic is like getting a write-up). Not quite a precise analogy, but seems to work. It’s also helpful that it’s often harder to get a free mention in a periodical than it is to just buy an ad (but often still worth it).

  11. Wow, what a great group of insights! It’s great to know there are so many smart people reading this blog. 🙂 It certainly sets the bar higher.

    Dharmesh, the ppc and advertising example is one I use as well. In fact, Scottie Claiborne wrote an article several years ago comparing PPC to Advertising and SEO to Public Relations. I’ve been using that example ever since.

  12. I agree to your Lee, it depends on your starting point. And that a “holistic approach” thing.
    “The moniker,

  13. I think one of the best analogies that I’ve read have come off of Solo SEO. It read:

    I first start by asking the person to imagine they have started building a building, from which they wish to sell a product or service, and explain that the building represents their website. Some already have a building, some are better than others, some bigger, taller, fancier, but everyone in this example has a building in various stages of completion. Then we discuss the importance of a good foundation for the building/site, such as the proper use and placement of title, header, and description meta tags, internal and external links, and the use of a sitemap. Next topic is the items required to properly finish the building, such as building walls, putting in cabinets, wiring, flooring, painting, finish work, etc. These building steps are also imperative in the SEOing of a site; finding appropriate keywords, creating fresh, unique content, link building, etc. In this analogy the search engines represent the building inspectors. These inspectors all are looking to insure the building is built to code, and of a measured level of quality. Each inspector might value certain aspects of the building, more than the others due to their opinion, but all of them attempt to take these aspects into consideration when determining the overall

  14. In many respects the concept of driving traffic to your website reminds me of the early days of the independent music scene in the UK. Manchester’s Factory records did little or no advertising of their music or clubs. By word of mouth alone they ensured that their music (Joy Division, New Order etc) reached a dedicated fanbase which in turn saw only a relevant crowd walking through the doors of their legendary club The Hacienda.

    So although SEO ought to be about attracting the people that will benefit from what you have to offer, in reality it is actually more like throwing some words in the air and hoping that somebody who is interested picks them up.

    The cultivation of relevance is the holy grail.

    Search engines are just one of many sources of traffic and in many cases your traffic turns around and leaves since the search engine returned your site through an algorithm, not any logical matching of the user’s interest.

    The future of driving traffic to your website has to lie in the Factory Records style of building the community.

    An interesting topic starter. Thanks. I stop by on a regular basis.

  15. Avatar Andy Headington says


    Another good post, covering simple exampls of what SEO is. I’ve had alot of people contact me recently who are very sceptical of the whole process. What they dont realise, as you point out, that there website is just the public view of what the company is doing. Having an optimised website should be the last piece of the puzzle, not the ‘silver bullet’. Look forward to your next article.

    The terms of ways of explaining SEO, I try and use the website as your salesman analogy.

    If your sales man attended business events once a year, then he wouldn’t expect to get any business or people speaking to him (i.e. updating your website).

    If your salesman went to the same place regularly, but didn’t speak much sense or spoke on a variety of topics, you wouldn’t identify them as being worthy of a referal (i.e. no good content).

    If your salesman didn’t refer to people as being good at their job, they wouldn’t get any referals in return (i.e. getting links).

    This might sound a bit tenuous but people can relate to it and it is something which I regularly tell people (also that is a VERY simplified version of what ACTUALLY happens).

  16. Dave, Chris, Andy and Mark – thanks so much for contributing to this thread! I think many of this blog’s readers are getting a lot of benefit from the different perspectives shared here.

    SEO analogies: Building a home, a successful salesman(person), and this is classic, “(SEO is)like throwing some words in the air and hoping that somebody who is interested picks them up.”

  17. I prefer to turn the ‘optimizing for the search engines’ part into ‘optimizing for the people’ part. This effectively gives both good focus on quality, tracking and gives everyone more responsibility to face.

    I call this ‘doing it naturally’, as you are doing it for the humans, for the most part.

  18. right said, its difficult to explain to newbie the benefits and strategies of SEO. I try to explain some of this and other ideas on my blog in simple terms. not sure how much successful I am with that.

  19. Lee, it looks like your article has sure sparked some interest and comments — all very interesting. What I find challenging are the (potential) clients who think that in a couple of hours (and for a couple hundred bucks) you can magically transform their site into a top performer under the most generic search terms. I’m hoping that some of the descriptions discussed here will better demonstrate the need and complexity of holistic SEO. Thanks for starting the discussion!

  20. Tez,

    Setting expectations is 100% the responsibility of the SEO. Potential clients should be advised as to how long they should expect to wait before being able to rank for their targeted terms. A golden rule to live by is underpromise and overdeliver. As for those that expect to rank for “a couple hundred bucks”, that’s not the kind of client you want to have. That’s a lose-lose situation because they’re going to be unhappy and you’re going to be unsuccessful in that kind of time period. You want clients that have money to spend and can justify the cost of a solid SEO campaign. Help them understand the value if they don’t get it. For example, if the potential client is a private school that charges $5k a month per student and their goal is 4 new students a month, then charging $4k a month with a goal of generating $20k in revenue for them is not unreasonable. Just make sure you can deliver.

  21. Lee-

    Just as with teaching anything, I try to find the common ground, which is often creating metaphors relating to their industry. From there I try to keep it simple and let them digest and grasp a “1st stage” of what can be done. I often call SEO “The Thousand Points of Light” as there are so many aspects to execute together for true success, but I start with a “top 10” or the “basic 10” and explain what they are and how they work together. Getting the base of understanding will allow for value to be established and further education as needed. I also agree with you … it’s not just about content/structure that attracts engine rankings but content that attracts users/links/attention. Thanks for another great post!

  22. I’ll second on Mike here in part. While it is certainly a part of a SEOs job to educate the clients, the answer (the red pill) is not exactly what they want, really, though.

    When you tell your client that he needs to pay you several thousands of dollars per month and will only see the results in several months (or even 6-12 months), how good are the chances that you will have the client?

    I suspect some customers are just doomed to find this out on their own and it is also a part of a SEOs job to filter such clients (the ones who they won’t work with).

    This brings us to another point: how do you tell the client the truth and still get him as a client?

    Or, if you are someone looking for a SEO, what would inspire trust in you for a SEO, who tells you that you need to work hard for 6 months to get solid SEO results?

  23. Yuri,

    You have to be honest with your potential clients from the very start. Do you really want that client if you have to deceive them? Those clients will never stay with you long term. Even if it’s “not what they want to hear”, you still have to properly educate them. Can you still get them as a client? Absolutely if you act as a consultant and not just a SEO. If a campaign is going to take 6-12 months there are other options. Pay per click while your waiting for your SEO efforts to kick in, target easier terms to start with (local searches, sub-categories, etc.),high traffic niche directories, etc.

    As for how do you earn their trust? What works for me is showing them how I’ve helped other companies to rank in top 5 results for targeted search terms in Google is crucial. Take them through the web analytics of a high traffic site. Share success stories of your existing clients. If they still are unsure, use an existing client to provide a referral. If you’ve done a great job for existing clients they’ll have no problem doing a favor for you and giving that person a call (as long as you’re not asking them to give a referral to a competitor).

  24. Yeah, that’s what I did with the last prospective client. I was honest, identified the real target from the spot and offered a way to reach it. The caveat was that the client wanted to build a community and you can’t exactly predict how successful you are here until you start working here in my opinion.

    What you are talking about would work well for any website you can safely predict the results of your works. As for me, I can more or less precisely predict how my efforts will pull an e-commerce website in traffic and sales.

    But when it comes to predicting something less predictable as human reaction to your actions and when there are no other options except for building audience-targeted content and integrating social aspects in the website architecture, there isn’t as much room to play in.

    But you are right in this one: showing your previous successful projects is the best way to get a client. But here’s another thing. If I had built a really succcessful community around my site, would I be working as a SEO consultant for others?

    Yes, I am not talking about other projects for other people, because I suspect it is much more rewarding (both emotionally and financially) to work for yourself than being underpaid, undertrusted and such.

    I suspect my opinions are biased in a way, as I have worked for several clients for (2) years as a in-house SEO, but since they didn’t appreciate the effors (didn’t wait long enough), I’ve got fired and have nothing to show at the moment except my 6 month blog statistics. Now realize that all local clients have a mentality of a ‘get top ranking quick, cheap’ and you’ll have a full picture of my experience.

    Here end the rants of a newbie (2.5 years of experience) SEO 😉

  25. Great article. Lots of good information for the newbies out there.


    Potential clients are wonderful things. “my competitor’s’ site gets these search engine results, we should too because…?

    I say because WHY?!… Why do you deserve results? Why do you think you are better than your competitors? Seriously – WHY?!

    Prove that you are serious about what you do, that you are actually passionate about your business or even care what kind of service you are giving to your clients – and then we can talk.

    Honestly, how much better would our job be if potential clients actually cared about their offerings? Bring back some good ol’ fashion integrity and guess what – regular content updates would be a joyous time, providing good resources would come naturally because of their desire want their clients to get it – like we do.

    I think the big G has actually got some things right.

    It sometimes gets its delivery wrong (page rank) but what it is trying to achieve is to inject some integrity into websites.

    Good websites at the top of Google and all others – well, enjoy the fiery warmth near your feet.


  1. Cornwallseo.com » SEO is fundamentally a set of methodologies says:

    […] I’m breaking my golding rule which is not to blog about what others have blogged about, but only because I want to point out how cool the blog post was. Check out SEO for Newbies. The moniker,